Interview: Stuart Townsend and Martin Henderson
Wed, 01 Oct 2008 10:15:17
Channing Tatum Photos
Stuart Townsend Videos
Creating lasting change is seldom an easy task. Just ask the more than 40,000 people who protested the Word Trade Organization’s 1999 summit in Seattle. The WTO is a coalition of international big businesses and other organizations that largely control the economic fate of the world. Their policies decide the political destinies of third world countries, determine the environmental impact of industry and trade, and dictate which nations rule the world. But in 1999, thousands of protesters met on the streets of Seattle to send a message to the WTO: We’re watching you. Battle in Seattle, the directorial debut of actor Stuart Townsend, portrays the events through the eyes of protesters, riot cops, and governmental officials and gives insight into one of the most important political uprisings in American history.
I met with writer/director Stuart Townsend and actor Martin Henderson to talk about politics, democracy, and turtle suits.
Where were you when the actual Battle for Seattle happened?
Stuart Townsend: I was in Dublin, which is why I wrote this, to get some context. I thought, "I don’t really think that people remember this," so I wanted to reexamine it and bring it to the big screen.
Why did you choose Andre Benjamin for his role as an environmental activist and what did he bring to it?
ST: I saw him in OutKast and I loved the show. The energy coming off of him was amazing. I always wanted his character to bring some humor to the role. And that guy looks good in anything so I thought he’d look great in a turtle suit. There’s not many people you can put in a turtle suit. I put on the turtle suit right before he arrived and I looked like an idiot. I was like, “Fuck, he’s gonna freak out.” Only he can rock a turtle suit.
Why didn’t you appear in this film?
ST: I thought doing all the other stuff, writing, directing, producing, was hard enough. I did do a small cameo. I really wanted to do it all, but acting is so separate.
Martin, what do you remember about the 1999 riots?
Martin Henderson: I remember a little bit. I was in America as a student at the time. I’m from New Zealand, so I would go back and forth to see my family. But I was struck by the awareness of the event in New Zealand. I found it interesting that in my time in America, there would be less people that seemed to know about it, even though it was a domestic issue. It was curious to me. I didn’t put the dots together, what the media portrayed here and that the real issues were not really broadcast. I’m curious what powers were at play, so I’ve read some books on the subject on globalization. I read a book called Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy, which was from a native Indian woman’s perspective on the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank. It was also about the trade rules that create a world where we have so many poor and starving people, but we still have these huge, huge warehouses of wheat and different grains that are not allowed on the market. That just baffles me. How can trade determine things like that when you have starving people? You know that food can be eaten. When I read Stuart’s script I was glad someone could get their scalpel into this event and the issues surrounding it.
Why don’t you think people protest with all of these problems today?
MH: As a non-American, I ask myself that today. I protested the war. I didn’t believe it was just; it smelled fishy from the get-go. It seemed convenient that certain things aligned and then we went into this country. I protested in Australia. And I think fear and the government here did a clever job in making people who spoke out about the war feel un-American and unpatriotic. There was a real culture of fear [dissuading] people to voice their rights.
“Seattle was such a victory that it is never going to be allowed to happen again.”
Then what kind of comment is that about democracy?
ST: That’s the whole point of the film. Ironically, Seattle was such a victory that it is never going to be allowed to happen again. So at every other G8 meeting and world meeting, even the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the police presence is completely overwhelming. Meaningful dissent has been crushed. Look at the financial crisis. We are being asked to give $700 billion of our money to the guys who fucked the system up in the first place. Where’s the outrage? I just don’t understand that. This film is an attempt to bring a new audience in and get them outraged. The [institution] that people were fighting in 1999 is the same economic system that brought us the financial crisis. It is so much harder. The Patriot Act was pushed through and that hindered dissent. There is so much distraction in the world and it’s hard to connect the dots. Most people don’t connect the financial crisis with the WTO. People are just living their lives, trying to get by.
MH: I think there’s apathy amongst younger people too. They say, that’s the way it is.
ST: I don’t know about that. I feel like it’s just overwhelming. I hope it’s not apathy, I really think it’s just easy to feel overwhelmed by global warming and everything that is going on.
What was it like directing an ensemble cast and your wife, Charlize [Theron]?
ST: All the actors were so great. Woody [Harrelson], Martin, Charlize. I was like an actor's conveyor belt. Sometimes you’d see eight actors in a day moving to different scenes. Some actors were easy, some had a lot of questions. Some were divas like Martin.
Did Charlize bring any ideas to the film?
ST: She is just so easy to direct. She makes everyone’s job really easy. She does ask a lot of questions. It’s not really about coaxing a performance out of her. It’s really about when she gets it perfect on the first time, what do you do then? That was a strange moment. Usually you try to spend a lot of time trying to get what you want, but with her it was instant.
Stuart, how did your experience growing up in Ireland, with the struggles between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, inform your vision of this movie?
ST: Definitely growing up with riots, there’s something in there that reacts to that visual. I have seen colonialism. I think there’s a justice streak in Irish people. We’re one of the few countries in the world that was oppressed by colonization rather than being the oppressor. It wasn’t really part of my life, because I grew up in Dublin in the 1970s, but there may have been some ancestral blood thing going on.
You filmed part of this film in Canada. This film is also critical of outsourcing. Did you try to make an effort to do the film entirely in the U.S.?
ST: This is actually a Canadian film [and] we outsourced some of it to Seattle. Heavily ironic, I know. It’s got some American money in it. But you know, Canadians were the only ones willing to make it. We shopped it around in the U.S. But no one would do it. We did it in Vancouver, with only a few days in Seattle. It’s ironic that it’s a Canadian film, shot by an Irishman, with an English actor, a New Zealander, and a South African, and Ivory Coast person, an African person, and two Croatians. There were some fine Americans, too. It was a global piece of cinema. I wish we could have shot the whole thing in Seattle, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get this story made.
What do you hope that the audience will take away from this?
ST: I hope to inspire the younger generation. Especially using Andre, Channing Tatum, Woody, and Charlize, I wanted to use actors that young people really liked. If I made a documentary, no one would have seen it. By this approach, we thought that if we could make it more about the characters and the emotional connections, not just political connections, we could hit somewhat of a mainstream audience. It’s hard to get people in to see a politics movie. In France, people talk about politics all the time. But here, you have to cover it in words like inspiring, and empowering. I wanted to connect people, get them inspired, and get them outraged.